Elina Lewe & Linda Turunen
GOTS, BCI or Fairtrade cotton? How about products with recycled content or those that are marketed as “eco friendly” or ethical? The textile industry contains a variety of guidance – third-party validated ecolabels and free form communication – directing customers towards alternatives, which are regarded as more sustainable.
Diving into the jungle of the most used ecolabels in the textile industry, this blogpost aims to explore the ecolabel topic and bring clarity to what the different labels mean and how to read them. 30 ecolabels and social compliance initiatives were examined and sustainability communication by 20 small-sized textile firms were reviewed in order to understand how ecolabels are used in the textile industry and how or if sustainability claims can also be validated without them.
It became evident that despite consumers associating ecolabels as a general sign of a product’s sustainability, the third-party verified ecolabelling contains very specific criteria, which usually cover one (or some) specific part(s) of the supply chain. Thus, there does not exist one master ecolabel to cover all, and therefore it is also difficult to compare the different labels with each other.
An ecolabel is defined as “a label that identifies the overall environmental preference of a product or service based on its life-cycle considerations.”
(Global Ecolabelling network, 2004)
For businesses, the use of ecolabels is voluntary. It means that ecolabels are external third-party offerings, which a company can decide (or not) to apply for their product, product component or service, and the value chain connected to it. Some ecolabels are issued by governments, like the German Blue Angel, the Nordic Swan or the EU Ecolabel, but there exist some more narrow labels such as OEKO-TEX, which is a private enterprise.
Each ecolabel comprises their own set of criteria, and as a service, they examine the evaluated product or component against these requirements. If the criteria are met, it will be granted a third-party certification to be used in communication, which is valid for a certain amount of time, until it needs to be renewed. Application process requires time, human and monetary resources from stakeholders involved.
The advantage of ecolabels is that third-party evaluation creates credibility to the business and trust from the consumer side, but also from other stakeholders that are involved in the value chain (Hayat et al. 2020). External verification by ecolabels shed light on the aspects that might be otherwise unobservable. It is also argued that consumers are more willing to pay price premium for ecolabelled items (Feuß et al. 2022).
Ecolabels in general are regarded as signs for environmentally preferable alternatives in the market. Due to their detailed criteria – which are often not known by consumers – they verify and have various emphasis on the environmental and/or social aspects, often in specific life-cycle stage in the supply chain processes: Depending on the ecolabel, it can for example offer validation for specific aspects in raw material processing, yarn, dying and/or wet processes in textile production and/or manufacturing phase. Reviewing the criteria of the ecolabels and trying to bring clarity on which label verifies what, it became more evident that many ecolabels cover multiple stages, but only specific aspects within the stages. A product can carry an ecolabel, also if only one part of the value chain has been certified. This can be misleading for consumers, who might see the whole product as being more sustainable than others. Only some ecolabels can cover every step of the value chain of a product which are, for example, Nordic Swan or the EU Ecolabel.
It is worthwhile to also point out that in addition to ecolabels familiar for consumers, there are also third-party audits and certifications that bring security mainly in the B2B market. For example, to ensure decent working conditions, some companies require third-party audits from their suppliers before building a business relationship. Companies that decide to require these certifications often do so to bring transparency and trustworthiness to their supply chain. As the supply chains are often complex and global, companies might be searching for verifications from external audits to secure their supply chain processes. Third-party verifications can help secure for example working conditions or environmental aspects of the factory. Examples for these business-facing ecolabels are SA8000, WRAP (Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production) or amfori BSCI. (see appendix for more details)
For curious and devoted customers it might be valuable information that a company is actively monitoring and working towards better working conditions in their supply chain, but these audits are rarely used in consumer-facing communication as they operate at factory level (and are not reported in product-specific manner).
Sustainability claims of smaller brands
Ecolabels might bring trustworthiness to sustainability claims, but due to their resource intensiveness, in regards to data, human and monetary resources, they can stay unreachable for small-sized brands. For example, ecolabelled materials are often more expensive compared to the conventional alternatives, and some labels, like the OEKO-TEX, require the brand to both be involved in the process, and to have the necessary resources to receive the certification.
Without the boost of trustworthiness created by external ecolabels, small brands are searching alternative ways to communicate their product’s sustainability. In order to find out how sustainability is validated by small-sized companies, the sustainability communication of 20 small-sized European clothing brands was reviewed.
What became clear is that for small-sized textile firms, transparency of the supply chain is used as a form of validation of their social sustainability: a lot of small fashion brands publish a complete list of their suppliers on their websites with information about their location, if they have any certifications, the amount of workers, working hours, or the gender distribution in the factories. Transparent communication was applied also to usage of materials, for example, some small-sized companies listed in detailed manner the materials and their origins, and sources of recycled content. Material related certifications were also pointed out.
Further, it became evident that some small brands offer data-based related carbon footprint calculations for their products, and actions to compensate them. However, this can be a difficult way to show sustainability efforts, since consumers might not be able to tell what type of carbon footprint is good or bad. In addition to just sharing the carbon footprint on its own, it is therefore important to also share the efforts the company is making to reduce the footprint and explain where the emissions are coming from.
In terms of environmental and social sustainability of product manufacturing and textile mills, the smaller brands rely on EU labour regulations for factories within the EU, and visits to the factories on a regular basis to ensure that their supplier code of conduct that needs to be signed by all partners, is kept accordingly.
The commitment to the REACH regulation of the EU (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) which is mandatory for all organisations, placing products on the EU market, is often named to validate the brands’ commitment against the use of hazardous chemicals within their products (Understanding REACH, n.d.). However, the REACH regulation can be seen more as the baseline or the bare minimum when it comes to chemicals in textile production processes. In order to promote sustainability, more proactive work is needed. For example, if the product is produced outside of the EU, there might be some hazardous chemical use during production, and REACH ensures only that the item sold in the EU is not containing these chemicals anymore. For smaller companies who source their material outside of the EU and have no resources to receive additional ecolabels, it can be difficult to verify their sustainability efforts when it comes to toxicity and chemical use (i.e. environmentally and socially harmful processes) in material production phases.
To show their dedication to avoid waste, without any ecolabel validation, the small production volume and aims to avoid excess inventory have been often pointed out. It is not unproblematic, as factories often have production minimums, which might force companies to either increase orders or find ways to work together with other small brands with local production facilities.
Exploration also showed that some brands created their own catalogue of criteria for their suppliers, which is published on their websites for consumers or other organisations to see. This can also be in the form of a brand’s code of conduct, which is written in a consumer facing way, in order for customers to understand their values when it comes to sustainability.
Shades of Green instrument
In search of bringing clarity and structure for the jungle of ecolabels and consumer facing sustainability communication, the sustainability communication tool called Shades of Green instrument (SoG) for garments, has been developed in FINIX-consortium. The instrument emphasises circular economy and product’s longevity in the evaluation. To offer comparable product-related sustainability information, the assessment includes both environmental and social aspects throughout a product’s supply chain: material and design decisions, environmental impact of production, working conditions and support services that enable the long lifetime of the garment, will be reviewed. Instrument’s criteria accept qualitative reporting, and thus, it has been developed especially with small sized fashion companies in mind.
To use Shades of Green instrument to evaluate a product’s sustainability level, a variety of aspects needs to be considered and reported. If a product or a product component has an ecolabel it can provide a verification and justification for SoG evaluation. For more detailed information on the current status of SoG criteria in comparison to examined third-party certifications and ecolabels, see table in the appendix.
Feuß, S., Fischer-Kreer, D., Majer, J., Kemper, J., & Brettel, M. (2022). The interplay of eco-labels and price Cues: Empirical evidence from a large-scale field experiment in an online fashion store. Journal of Cleaner Production, 133707.
Global Ecolabelling network (2004). Introduction to Ecolabelling. Available at: https://www.gdrc.org/sustbiz/green/gen-infopaper.pdf
Hayat, N., Hussain, A., & Lohano, H. D. (2020). Eco-labeling and sustainability: A case of textile industry in Pakistan. Journal of Cleaner Production, 252, 119807.
Ranasinghe, L., & Jayasooriya, V. M. (2021). Ecolabelling in textile industry: A review. Resources, Environment and Sustainability, 6, 100037.
Turunen, Linda & Halme, Minna. (2021). Communicating actionable sustainability information to consumers: The Shades of Green instrument for fashion. Journal of Cleaner Production. 297. 126605. 10.1016/j.jclepro.2021.126605.
Understanding REACH. (n.d.) ECHA. https://echa.europa.eu/regulations/reach/understanding-reach.
References (Ecolabels table)
Nordic Swan: Nordic Ecolabelling for Textiles, hides/skins, and leather. (September 06, 2022). Nordic Ecolabelling. https://www.nordic-ecolabel.org/product-groups/group/DownloadDocument/?documentId=6523.
EU Ecolabel: Commission Decision of 5 June 2014 establishing the ecological criteria for the award of the EU Ecolabel for textile products. (June 13, 2014). Official Journal of the European Union. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:32014D0350&from=EN.
German Blue Angel: Blue Angel. The German Ecolabel. Textiles. Basic Award Criteria. (July, 2017). blauer-engel.de. https://produktinfo.blauer-engel.de/uploads/criteriafile/en/DE-UZ%20154-201707-en-Criteria-V1.9.pdf.
Factsheet Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX. (January, 2022). OEKO-TEX. https://www.oeko-tex.com/importedmedia/downloadfiles/STANDARD_100_by_OEKO-TEX_R__-_Standard_en_01.2022.pdf.
Standard. Made in Green by OEKO-TEX. (January, 2022). OEKO-TEX. https://www.oeko-tex.com/importedmedia/downloadfiles/MADE_IN_GREEN_by_OEKO-TEX_R__-_Standard_en_01.2022.pdf.
Factsheet STeP by OEKO-TEX. (January, 2022). OEKO-TEX. https://www.oeko-tex.com/importedmedia/downloadfiles/STeP_by_OEKO-TEX_R__-_Standard_en_01.2022.pdf.
GOTS: Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) Version 6.0. (March, 2020). Global Organic Textile Standard – Ecology and Social Responsibility. https://global-standard.org/images/resource-library/documents/standard-and-manual/gots_version_6_0_en1.pdf.
Better Cotton Initiative: BCI Principles and Criteria. (March 1, 2018). BetterCotton.org. https://bettercotton.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Better-Cotton-Principles-Criteria-V2.1.pdf.
Global Recycled Standard: Global Recycled Standard 4.0. (July 1, 2017). Textile Exchange. https://textileexchange.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Global-Recycled-Standard-v4.0.pdf.
Recycled Claim Standard: Recycled Claim Standard 2.0. (July 1, 2017). Textile Exchange. https://textileexchange.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Recycled-Claim-Standard-v2.0.pdf.
Recycled Content Standard: Recycled Content Standard, V7.0. Environmental Certification Services. (2014). SCS Global Services. https://cdn.scsglobalservices.com/files/standards/scs_stn_recycledcontent_v7-0_070814.pdf.
Environmental Claim Validation: (n.d.). Capability: Environmental Claim Validation. UL Solutions. Retrieved November 4, 2022, from https://www.ul.com/services/environmental-claim-validation.
Cotton made in Africa (CmiA): Cotton made in Africa Standard. Principles, criteria and indicators. (December, 2020). Cotton made in Africa. https://cottonmadeinafrica.org/wp-content/uploads/CMIA_Standard_ENG.pdf.
DEMETER: Production, Processing and Labeling. International Standard for the use and certification of Demeter, Biodynamic and related trademarks. (October, 2021). Biodynamic Federation Demeter. https://demeter.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/20211013_BFDI_Standard_for2022_englVersion_final.pdf.
China Organic Standard: The China Organic Standard GB/T 19630. The basis for sales of organic products to China. (December 12, 2019). SRS Certification (Shanghai) Co Ltd. https://srs-certification.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/OGA-Ti7-China-Organic-Standard-GBT19630-2019-12-12.pdf.
European Flax Standard: European Flax Guidance. (February, 2020). European Confederation of Flax and Hemp CELC. http://news.europeanflax.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/EUROPEAN-FLAX-GUIDANCE-Feb.2020.pdf.
Responsible Down Standard: (n.d.). Responsible Down Standard (RDS). Textile Exchange. Retrieved November 4, 2022, from https://textileexchange.org/standards/responsible-down/.
CertiPUR: CertiPUR-US Technical Guidelines for Slabstock Foam. (November 1, 2022). CertiPUR. https://certipur.us/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/0433_CertiPUR-US_Slabstock_Technical_Guidelines_11.1.22.pdf.
Amfori BEPI: (n.d.). The amfori BEPI System. amfori. Retrieved November 4, 2022, from https://www.amfori.org/content/one-implementation-system.
Cradle to Cradle Certified Products: Cradle to Cradle Certified Version 4.0. Product Standard. User Guidance. (2021). cradle to cradle products innovation institute. https://cdn.c2ccertified.org/resources/certification/guidance/V4.0_User_Guidance_FINAL_080621.pdf.
Green Tick Ecolabel: Green Tick Certification. Certification Standards. (February 9, 2022). Green Tick. https://www.greentick.com/_files/ugd/302efa_ba25d1170cb044e8ac3b9829f225eb8b.pdf.
Green Circle: (n.d.). Product Certifications. Green Circle Certified. Retrieved November 4, 2022, from https://www.greencirclecertified.com/product-certifications.
Green Leaf Mark: (n.d.). Sustainability Solution – Intertek Green Leaf Mark. intertek. Retrieved November 4, 2022, from https://www.intertek.com.hk/textiles-apparel/green-leaf-mark/.
NATURTEXTIL Best: NATURTEXTIL IVN certified BEST (IVN BEST). (May, 2018). International Association of Natural Textile Industry (IVN). https://naturtextil.de/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Richtlinie_IVN_Best_6_1_English_2018_08_01.pdf.
Organic Content Standard: Organic Content Standard 3.0. (March 1, 2020). Textile Exchange. https://textileexchange.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/OCS-101-V3.0-Organic-Content-Standard.pdf.
Bluesign Standard: bluesign CRITERIA for production sites. (March, 2020). bluesign technologies ag. https://www.bluesign.com/downloads/criteria-2020/bluesign_criteria_for_production-sites_v3.0_2020-03.pdf.
UPMADE: (n.d.). Criteria. UPMADE. Retrieved November 4, 2022, from https://www.upmade.org/certification/criteria.
Rcert: (n.d.). R Cert. REDRESS. Retrieved November 4, 2022, from https://www.redress.com.hk/r-cert#.
Max Havelaar: Max Havelaar – The Label for Fair Trade. And for cotton too. (n.d.). Max Havelaar Foundation. https://www.fairtrademaxhavelaar.ch/fileadmin/user_upload/publikationen/mh_Flyer_baumwolle_E.pdf.
Fairtrade Textile Standard: Fairtrade Textile Standard. (March 22, 2016). Fairtrade International. https://files.fairtrade.net/standards/TextileStandard_EN.pdf.
Fair Labour Practices and Community Benefits: Fair Labor Practices and Community Benefits. (n.d.) SCS. https://www.scscertified.com/docs/FLP_sellsheet_web.pdf.
WRAP: Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) 12 Principles. (December, 2020). WRAP. https://wrapcompliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/2020-05-WRAP-Principles.pdf.
SA8000: Guidance Document for Social Accountability 8000. (May, 2016). Social Accountability International. https://sa-intl.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/SA8000-2014-Guidance-Document.pdf.